I have probably read 30-40 books exploring the origins of World War I in the past 5-6 years and I thought that just about everything relevant there was to be known about the events of the month leading up to the war were known and historians have just been stirring the ashes and finding trivia in trying to determine a more accurate chain of causation. July 1914: Countdown to War by Sean McMeekin disabused of that notion. This work has made me aware of several things about the critical month between the Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of World War I that I am amazed have not gotten wider notice in the literature on World War I’s origins. This book is superb diplomatic history that through tight, focused prose and in depth research manages to untangle the tangled web of events in July 1914.
The book itself has 406 pages of text separated into two sections of 25 chapters including an Author’s Note, prologue, and epilogue. There are extensive endnotes for each chapter with relevant footnotes inserted into the text where appropriate and a 10 page bibliography. The two sections of the book cover the immediate reactions of the Great Powers of the day to the assassination and the subsequent diplomatic maneuvering leading up to the war.
There are several revelations in the book and no time is wasted in introducing the first, which I thought was a bombshell. This is that the relevant Russian and French archives have almost no records of the activities of their respective ambassadors for the month of July. What records for their activities that do exist are all secondary sources from the other great powers such as Germany, Austria, and Britain. I find it amazing that this lack of records has not been more highly touted in books on the origins of the war as it was these ambassadors, Paléologue for the French in St. Petersburg and Izvolsky for the Russians in France that played a pivotal role in relations of the two countries during the period leading up to Russian mobilization and the coordination between the two Allies. Another interesting fact that has gotten short shrift in the literature thus far is the sequence of events and timelines surrounding Russian mobilization. It is widely known that Russia began mobilization before any other power, what is not so widely known is that Russia had apparently decided on war at the time she declared the pre-mobilization “Period Preparatory to War” which was just mobilization by another name to begin with.
I have thought for years that the ultimate responsibility for the outbreak of war in 1914 lay with Russia. McMeekin’s work tends to confirm me in that belief. The final decision for war lay with the Tsar and more importantly with Sazonov his Foreign Minister and Yanushkevitch the Chief of the General Staff, both of whom pushed for war. .As you read the narrative it becomes increasingly clear that Russia wanted war. Why is not perfectly clear although it is certainly plausible that Russia felt they needed to be assertive because they had been humbled so often in the decade prior to the war and that Russia was at risk of losing its status as a great power. There is also the element of Russian lust for control of the outlet on the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, which would give the Russians a warm water port and was something they had wanted at least as far back as the Crimean War. Russia wanted war and right up until the last minute they had the ability to avoid one, all they had to do was stand down and allow the Austrians to punish Serbia for their support of regicide. That, the Russians would not do and in the end they dragged the rest of Europe into a war that was unnecessary.
Sean McMeekin has taken an opaque subject like diplomatic history and shed light on the manner in which diplomacy was conducted in the month prior to World War I. He masterfully weaves together the various actions of all the powers of Europe and makes a very complex series of events clear and easy to understand. July 1914: Countdown to War is the best diplomatic history of the period I have ever run across and is certain to become a classic and the standard work on the subject. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in why and how World War I broke out. A very clear look at a very muddy subject.
[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]
Victor Gregg’s Dresden: A Survivor’s Storyis a short work describing the author’s experience as POW who got caught in Dresden in February, 1945 when the Allies bombed the city in what would become known as the Firebombing of Dresden. The attack essentially destroyed the city center and killed an estimated 25,000 German’s. Wikipedia has a pretty good article on the attacks that also discusses the controversy surrounding them that has grown up since the war. To sum up the controversy, general anti-war people claim they were a crime and so do Neo-Nazi’s. Both claim that Dresden was not a legitimate military target or that if it was the bombing did not hit them.
Back to the book. Dresden: A Survivor’s Story, is the story of what one man saw and did just before, during, and just after the bombing. Printed the book would only amount to roughly 40 pages. It is an engaging tale and the author writes with a witty sarcasm that keeps the narrative flowing. The events he relates surrounding the Dresden bombing seem fantastical but are probably accurate representations of what actually happened. There is no doubt that the bombing of Dresden and it’s aftereffect were horrific. Mr. Gregg’s narrative reflects this. The only part of the book I take exception to is the afterword which I felt was a poorly written attempted rationale for why the Firebombing of Dresden was a war-crime. I leave it to the individual reader to research it on their own and make the decision of whether a war-crime (A term I object to) occurred or not.
Editorializing: Personally, I find the whole talk of war crimes to be farcical. It would be comical if so many people did not take the notion so seriously. The term and the associated crimes against humanity, genocide, etc. Have been so misused that they no longer have meaning. The traditional Laws of War stood the Western World in good stead for centuries and nothing that was done in WWII seems to me to have mitigated against their use. What has happened in the last hundred years is a Quixotic attempt to civilize war, an activity that is inherently uncivilized. The right of the victors would have sufficed perfectly to put the perpetrators of the holocaust against a wall but for some reason, the West felt the need for legalized vengeance. Their invention of these crimes has subsequently turned around and bit them ever since. There was no need to justify the destruction of Dresden, it was an enemy city and thus subject to attack. The severity of said attack was and is irrelevant. There is no such concept of proportionality in warfare, nor should their be. Warfare is doing what you think you need to do to compel your enemy to submit; no more and no less.
Overall this is a well written work of personal reflection. I recommend it for people that would like a description of what it was like to be in Dresden during and immediately after the bombing. There is no great amount of detail here but it gives a good general description of what living through such an event was like.
The Stasi Museum in Leipzig, Germany. For those who have never heard of it, the Stasi was the East German Little brother to the Russian NKVD internal security Secret Police. The Stasi maintained a network of informers within both East and West Germany during the Cold War and also maintained dossiers on almost every German, even many in the West. In East Germany (GDR) the Stasi was the government organ responsible for internal security and ferreting out dissidents to the regime. They did this by doing some things that made the Nazi Gestapo look like amateurs.
Below are some of the photos I took in our hasty tour of the museum before it closed.
The exterior of the former Stasi building as you approach it on the street.
Mural of the Coat of Arms of the (Minsitry for State Security) Stasi just inside the entrance to the building.
Machine used by the Stasi to steam open personal letters so their contents could be read in the search for dissidents.
Machine used to seal envelopes that had been opened. The goal was to make it so that people did not know, or at least were not sure, that their mail had been opened.
This machine was used to back-light letters. According to the plaques next to it, this method could sometimes catch microfilm that had been glued underneath the stamp.
Stasi officer’s Wall Locker with equipment.
Stool and camera used to take pictures of inmates held by the Stasi for questioning.
Holding Cell where Stasi detainees were kept, sometimes for months or years before their release.
Kit used by Stasi officers to disguise themselves when performing surveillance of citizens identified as possible regime enemies.
I had the opportunity to visit Leipzig this past weekend and while there stopped briefly by the monument to the 1813 Battle of the Nations from the Napoleonic Wars. At the Battle of the Nations the Sixth Coalition consisting of Prussia, Britain, Russia, and Austria fought the French Army of Napoleon and over the course of three days defeated him and forced him to retreat back to France.
I only had about 20 minutes at the monument and Leipzig is on my list of places to see again as one day was not enough to see all that I wanted to see. The monument is currently undergoing renovation in preparation for events surrounding the 200th anniversary of the Battle next year. It is maintained by a private charity the Förderverein Völkerschlachtdenkmal e.V. (in German). It is huge and you can walk inside it to the top of the monument, but I didn’t have time to do so. The Wikipedia entry about the monument is fairly decent. The monument is supposed to be located at the site of one of the bloodiest parts of the battle and near or at where Napoleon ordered the retreat of the French Army. So says Wikipedia and also the guide I had taking me around the city.
Below are the photos I managed to take of the monument looking across the reflecting pool to the monument. I plan on returning to Leipzig in the spring and doing a much more extensive study of the monument and the battlefield.
View of the monument across the reflecting poll in front of it. The water in the reflecting poll is pretty muddy, which kind of ruins the effect. The crane from renovation blocks portions of the view as well.
This is the best shot I could get of the Statue of the Archangel Michael at the base of the monument.
The statues around the top of the monument. If you look closely, you can see people walking around “oohing and aahing” on the top.
The best zoom I could get of some of the statues from the top of the monument.
A view of the monument from across the street. The cars give a sense of the size of the monument which is another 300 yards beyond the parking lot.
Saw this interesting little bit of history this morning and figure I would take a photo. This has less to do with warfare itself than with the aftermath of war. This is a plaque dedicated to the role that Bayreuth, Germany played in the resettlement of ethnic Germans in the wake of the mass expulsion of these people from their homes in Eastern Europe after Germany’s defeat in WWII. Their is a good piece with a brief history of post war ethnic movements in Europe by the BBC Here: Article
MY transaltion of the plaque below is:
No More War or Expulsions
from February to October 1946 the Bayreuth Main Train Station hosted 33 Cargo trains containing 39,281 expellees from the Sudetenland.
The city and county are thankful for the reception